Had the weather cooperated for Minute Maid Park to have its roof open, Santa Fe resident Jason Macaluso would have found somewhere near the ballpark to watch the Houston Astros regular season opener.

Galveston resident Robert Rodriguez is part of a group that before the pandemic would meet at Beerfoot Brewery in Galveston to watch Astros games but was considering having a video conference meeting with friends to cheer on the Astros together.

It’s all a part of a new normal for Galveston County residents when it comes to experiencing sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, as local diehard Astros fans anticipated a drastically different Opening Day for baseball.

“Baseball, to me, is still America’s pastime; there’s no other sport like it,” Rodriguez, 43, said. “We, the fans, are emotionally invested into this game.”

For Astros fans, this has been a particularly trying extended offseason, and not just because of the coronavirus-related four-month delay to the start of the season.

The team’s supporters have had to deal with the ramifications of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, as well as a bitter labor dispute between team owners and the players association before reaching this point.

“It’s been a range of emotions,” Rodriguez said.

Because of the delayed start, the Major League Baseball regular season has been shortened from 162 games to 60 games. Out of pandemic caution, teams only will play against other teams from their respective regions, and fans won’t be allowed to attend games.

‘YOU FEEL THE ELECTRICAL CHARGE’

Macaluso, 37, won’t be in the ballpark in person for the Astros Opening Day for just the third time in 30 years, he said. But, if fans look closely, they’ll still see the smiling faces of Macaluso, his wife and two daughters in the Crawford Boxes.

The Macaluso family members are among about 1,350 Astros fans who paid to have cardboard cutouts with their images on them placed in Minute Maid Park’s empty seats. The proceeds from the cardboard cutout sales go to the team’s charitable organization, The Astros Foundation.

“We have season tickets, and I just floated the idea to my wife and kids, and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Macaluso said. “It was $300, and it goes to charity. I’ll spend that much on one game.”

League City resident Seth Alford, 37, his wife and three young daughters also are Astros season ticket holders. While they, too, will miss being able to go to games in person, the return of baseball, at least, offers a new topic of conversation, Alford said.

“All in all, I’m pretty pumped about it; America needs sports,” Alford said. “It’ll be good for us to have something to argue about that isn’t politically charged. I just want to be able to call my friends in Dallas and say, ‘Hey, today is Wednesday, and just in case you didn’t know, I still don’t like your baseball team.’”

The buzz and intensity of the crowd is itself very much part of the game, and Alford wondered how having that taken away might affect players’ performances. For the people in the crowd, a baseball game — particularly a big-time ball game — is an experience unlike any other, Alford said.

“You can’t recreate the ambience and the emotion, especially when you start getting to the final stretch of the season or start getting into the playoffs,” Alford said. “Game 7 last year of the World Series was a terrible game to watch. Game 7 in 2017 against the Yankees was the greatest game I’ve ever been to. You feel the electrical charge, and you can’t replicate that unless you’re actually there.”

Baseball games provide a fan experience that stands above and beyond those at a football or basketball game, Macaluso said.

“There’s something about being at the game — the sounds, the smells, every little piece,” Macaluso said. “The atmosphere of the games is so much better and so much more enjoyable. I’m definitely going to miss this season, and I don’t expect this season to finish, I can tell you that right now. I can’t see it happening.”

RIPPLE EFFECT OF POSITIVITY

Before Opening Day, Astros supporters got a glimpse of what MLB games will be like, as teams played in multiple exhibition games in preparation for the season.

“It was entertaining to watch just to see what these guys were going to do,” Rodriguez said. “Some of them were not high-fiving each other, guys were wearing masks, some of the players were still rusty.”

As far as how the shortened season will affect the Astros’ success, local supporters were generally optimistic it would be beneficial to the team. Less games means less innings and less wear and tear for the Astros’ top two starting pitchers — Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, who are both in their late 30s.

The same can be said for the Astros’ No. 3 starting pitcher Lance McCullers, who missed all of last season after having Tommy John arm surgery. Position players with a history of missing games with injuries — like shortstop Carlos Correa — will have a chance to play the entire season.

“This should be beneficial for us,” Macaluso said.

Something fans also largely agreed upon was that a successful season for the Astros could create a ripple effect of positivity during a time when it’s sorely needed.

“The area could use a little bit more love, and everybody in Houston is friendlier with one another when the Astros are winning,” Alford said.

James LaCombe: 409-683-5242, james.lacombe@galvnews.com or on Twitter @JamesAtGalvNews

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